April 2009 Issue
by Jay Gentile
First there was Dan Rostenkowski. Then Rod Blagojevich. Then Rahm Emanuel. And now…Mike Quigley? Yes, Illinois will find itself in the national media spotlight yet again this month during an April 7 special election in which voters will send Cook County Commissioner Mike Quigley packing to Washington to replace White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel in Illinois’ infamous 5th Congressional District. Following the scandals surrounding Illinois’ impeached former governor and the investigation of Illinois junior senator/Blagojevich appointee Roland Burris, reform candidate Mike Quigley emerged as the upset victor in a crowded 12-way Democratic primary for the U.S. House seat on March 3. Quigley is poised for an easy April 7 general election win in this heavily Democratic district, which covers much of Chicago’s Northwest Side and a few western suburbs. The district has been represented by a Republican only once in the past century — and this was for just one term after former 5th District Representative and House Ways & Means Committee powerhouse Dan Rostenkowski was indicted on federal corruption charges in 1994 and sentenced to prison. Rostenkowski’s successor, Michael Patrick Flanagan, was quickly deposed two years later by “reform” candidate Rod Blagojevich — who was replaced by Rahm Emanuel after Blagojevich moved into the governor’s mansion in 2003.
Needless to say, the 5th District has spun itself into quite a tangled web of power and intrigue over the years, not to mention the sheer soap-opera quality of the current status of affairs — where connecting the dots from the 5th District to the White House is as simple as drawing a straight line. In this environment Quigley seems an unlikely choice, given the Chicago machine’s strong backing of both Emanuel and Blagojevich in past elections. This time around, with a Chicagoan already occupying the Oval Office and with their power diminished by a series of relentless corruption investigations, the city’s political establishment refrained from making an official endorsement — although State Representative John Fritchey benefited from the strongest institutional support. Fritchey, a relative of influential 36th Ward Alderman Bill Banks, was also supported by the Illinois AFL-CIO as well as the Illinois Federation of Teachers. But in the March 3 primary, Fritchey was hurt by this lackluster city machine support as his get-out-the-vote effort fell short of what was needed to claim victory in a low voter-turnout election — in which just 17 percent of the district’s 350,000 registered voters cast ballots.
As a result Fritchey wound up splitting the vote with the other favorite in the race, State Representative Sara Feigenholtz — who was endorsed by both Emily’s List as well as the Illinois Service Employees International Union (SEIU) — to the point where neither candidate had enough votes to carry their respective base. This left the door open for Quigley, who was outspent by Feigenholtz by a margin of 2-1, to nab some of Fritchey’s blue-collar votes on the Northwest Side while also stealing from Feigenholtz’s more liberal base near the lakefront. In fact, it seems that Quigley’s strong showing in the “lakefront liberal” 43rd and 44th wards may have made the difference for him. Quigley himself worked the area hard as well, standing outside of a Brown Line el stop in his Lakeview neighborhood greeting voters up until the very end on a cold March 3 primary day. In the final tally Quigley prevailed with a little over 12,000 votes, or 22% of the total, compared with Fritchey’s 18% and 17% for Feigenholtz. An insurgent campaign by the little-known Polish-born candidate Victor Forys, who nabbed 11% of the vote, also stole a good deal of support away from Fritchey’s base on the Northwest Side and western suburbs — where Fritchey had been endorsed by the leaders of several suburban communities.
Quigley had little institutional support other than media endorsements from both the Chicago Tribune and Sun-Times, relying on his reputation as a reformer known for taking on the notoriously corrupt Cook County government to carry him over the top in a year in which “change” was a national campaign theme. “It was a very compressed primary,” Quigley spokesman Billy Weinberg told Chicago INNERVIEW. “It was much more a referendum on what Mike had done over the past ten years [on the county board] than what he has done in the past two months of the primary. It was not the best-financed campaign; some people were able to raise more money. I think it should give people hope that the candidate who spoke the most about hope and change was the one elected. It shows that money doesn’t always mean finishing on top in the polling places.” According to campaign records, Quigley raised approximately $400,000 for the primary compared with $600,000 for Fritchey and $800,000 for Feigenholtz.
In the April 7 general election, Quigley will face Republican challenger Rosanna Pulido — who won the Republican primary on March 3 with just over 1,000 votes, or 25% of the total votes cast in the much smaller Republican contest. Yet Pulido, director of the anti-illegal immigration Illinois Minutemen Project, told Chicago INNERVIEW that she remains convinced an upset over Quigley is possible. “There are plenty of Blue Dog Democrats that don’t like the direction the Democratic Party in Illinois is going,” she said, adding that the 5th District is much more socially conservative than people realize. “A lot of people feel they have to vote Democratic because they want a new garbage can; they want their garbage picked up. People are almost scared of voting anything else.” Speaking about Quigley, Pulido called him “part of the political machine” and “a Blagojevich Democrat” who calls himself a reformer but has never actually reformed anything. Pulido said she has never run for office before but that as a “citizen politician,” she’s been active in lobbying the state government in Springfield on issues related to Second Amendment gun-ownership rights (“I believe in conceal-and-carry”) and illegal immigration. She said illegal immigration hurts the American worker and is particularly important “in a time where three million Americans are laid off of work.” Also running in the April 7 general election is Green Party candidate Matt Reichel, who won his party’s March 3 primary with a total of 166 votes.
Yet barring some unforeseen calamity, Quigley will be elected on April 7 and sent to the House — where he plans to focus on issues “very much along the lines of what he’s done for Cook County government,” according to Weinberg. Specifically he cited the environment, creating green jobs and fighting for increased transparency and accountability in the federal government, particularly as it relates to congressional oversight of federal bailout funds. He said that Quigley is aware of the benefit of occupying the congressional seat held most recently by Emanuel, but also of the additional scrutiny resulting from occupying the seat once held by Blagojevich and Rostenkowski as well. “He’s under no illusion that it’s gonna be as easy as placing a phone call to people who may be his neighbors, like Rahm Emanuel or David Axelrod,” said Weinberg. And once seated, Quigley will rank as the second-least powerful member of the House out of 435 in terms of seniority. (Since California still has not held a special election to replace Labor Secretary Hilda Solis in L.A. County, whoever wins that July race will be the lowest-ranking member of the House — putting Quigley at a rank of 434 out of 435.) Yet Weinberg also acknowledged that the 5th District has “a higher profile than any other district in the country” and that not all newly-elected freshmen congressmen receive congratulatory phone calls from the President of the United States, as Quigley did following the primary. “Whether it’s number 434 or number four, I think Mike will be a member of Congress people will hear from.”
With the way politics in Illinois is going these days, perhaps the best measure of success for the new congressman will in fact be how much we don’t hear from him.